Hazel McHaffie

St George’s Chapel

Bowling along

Imagine the excitement … you’ve had an invitation to one of the most high profile society/royal weddings of the year. OK, you may be one of 850 guests, nevertheless there are standards to maintain. You spend more on your outfit than your local council spends on its budget for waste disposal. Your fascinator/hat is handmade to match exactly the pure silk dress. Shoes, clutch bag … ditto. Even your underwear is top of the range. You’ve spent hours in the gym, with your masseuse, your beautician. On the day, the hairdresser comes to your house to be sure you have his undivided and timely attention. The result is … perfection. Elegance, style, poise – ticks all round.

Surrounded by the rich and famous, all likewise behaving as if being swathed in thousands is no big deal, you stroll nonchalantly along the road towards St George’s Chapel, four inch stilettos on treacherous paving clearly an everyday normality,  Next moment … a class-blind wind whips the said fortune of sanamay, feather and net from your head, rolling it along the gutter like a trundling hoop from the 19th century. Men in tails, policemen in white gloves, give chase. You stand exposed, careful coiffure cruelly ripped loose by the frenzied fingers of sister currents.

And that was the coverage that characterised the BBC news of the build up to the day when Princess Eugenie Victoria Helena, 9th in line to the British throne, became Mrs Jack Christopher Stamp Brooksbank.

The ceremony held no surprises.
Traditional music, archaic vows, intoned prayers (the couple appeared not to be listening half the time) … except perhaps Princess Beatrice (minus pretzel) occasionally emerging from a singularly awkward seat to tweak the train into line, and to read from The Great Gatsby.
The dress was vintage haute couture, designed to show off a flawless back and pay tribute to the brilliance of orthopaedic surgeons everywhere … except I rather think the NHS would prefer the money it cost.
The bridesmaids and pageboys were standard issue … except perhaps the priceless moment when Robbie Williams‘ daughter asked Sarah Ferguson if she was the Queen!
The whole shebang of famous faces were there … except the Duchess of Cornwall who apparently had an unbreakable prior engagement in Scotland.

But, for that one invited guest in head-to-toe navy blue, the day must surely be eclipsed by the ruination of her perfect look. All that thought, all that money, stolen by a puff of nature.

It felt symbolic to me. I wasn’t in Windsor (turned it down on the basis of more pressing commitments, you understand) but I spent the day of the wedding working on my novel, ratcheting up the tempo, hardening off characters, choreographing major clashes of bruised egos. And it’s as if a wind blew through my story, tossing out the superficial flummery, whipping out the loose strands, erasing the superficial smile, and getting right down to the bare bones of the plot. I’m excited all over again. But this time I’m rebuilding a much more robust edifice, using stronger fabric, reinforcing the foundations; one that should withstand the buffeting of critics. Plenty of hat-pins to anchor the false trails.

I hope to look back on it in years to come as a sensible use of resources rather than a nod towards fame and celebrity. My own personal survivor from the hurricane winds on that auspicious day.

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Royal weddings and a little serendipity

Well, I doubt I could have found a more suitable book to read during the week of the royal wedding if I’d tried!

I wonder what you thought listening to the African American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry preaching about love in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on Saturday …? I personally loved his energy, his conviction, his relevant message, not just for the happy couple but for the world. Love would indeed redeem so many situations. And boy, did he put his heart and soul into it. He stood out in sharp contrast to the many staid, formal, set-texts of so many royal events. But even the very British Archbishop of Canterbury shared lots of smiles and humour with the first-name-terms royal couple.

This wedding has broken with so many traditions. A white prince of the realm marrying a mixed heritage American divorcee … in a church … in the presence of the Queen. The bride – a free-thinking actress – walking herself down the long aisle, only her mother of all her family present to witness her transition (my heart went out to her). The music a mix of ancient and modern, including a black gospel choir, a black cellist. Ordinary people who work tirelessly for humanitarian causes chosen guests instead of parliamentarians, heads of states, foreign royals. A lemon and elderflower sponge in place of the usual rich fruit. I could go on. It had all the hallmarks of an intimate wedding made to measure for the bride and groom, but on a massive scale and shared generously with the world.

And Gilead by Marilynne Robinson picks up so many of the themes we saw during that historic occasion, including a mixed-race ‘marriage’! I bought it at the Christian Aid Sale I told you about last week – the book not the marriage! The narrator is a minister of religion, Reverend John Ames, now in his late seventies. Totally unexpectedly, already in his sixties, he falls in love with and, at her instigation, marries a much-younger woman from a different social stratum, and together they have a son. Ames lives in daily expectation of his heart failing, he knows he will not be around to see his boy grow to manhood, so he commits to paper, the kinds of things he would want to say at opportune moments if he were to live longer.

It’s difficult to capture the beauty and tenderness of this writing. The Reverend comes from generations of men of the cloth and he’s steeped in the Bible and spiritual thinking; he is thoroughly authentic and believable. But his gentle exhortations and reflections are not dull or hackneyed; they’re full of compassion and understanding and wisdom. He roams over many important issues for his boy, illustrating his philosophy from his own life, his own mistakes, his own secrets, reviewed with honesty and humility. Forgiveness, temptation, covetousness, pastoral responsibility, relationship, heaven and hell … he shirks none of them, revealing a glorious all-embracing Christian love reminiscent of that Bishop Michael Curry spoke about at the royal wedding, hard won at times, an ongoing work at others, but ultimately a triumphant declaration of what it means to put the gospel into action in one’s life.

One illustration will suffice. Ames knows all too clearly that his love for his son is all-consuming. If anyone threatened the boy, he knows his principles would fly out the window.
Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He (Jack Boughton) could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology of forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.

It surprised me to see that this was only the second novel by this most accomplished writer – her first being 23 years earlier! Even more remarkable, it won several awards, including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In today’s secular world, that a work of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity, such simple grace, such solemn serenity, should be so acclaimed, is something of a miracle in itself. As I finished it in the garden on the beautiful sunny day of the royal wedding, It felt like a benediction.

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